Justin Bieber: Affluenza poster boy

The singer seems to think he's above the law -- and he may be right

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 24, 2014 3:46PM (EST)

Justin Bieber              (AP/Dan Steinberg)
Justin Bieber (AP/Dan Steinberg)

It's the smile. That dewy-eyed, toothpaste commercial grin on the mug shot. It's the arrest report that attests he'd asked, "What the f*** did I do? Why did you stop me?" It's the description of how he "briefly sat on top of a black Cadillac Escalade, where he waved to screaming fans, before he was chauffeured away" after his Miami arrest for racing his yellow Lamborghini on a residential street, failing a sobriety test and admitting "he had consumed some alcohol, and that he had been smoking marijuana and consumed some prescription medication." Justin Bieber, you smug, entitled SOB. You really don't understand that you are not some joyriding playboy, but a potential killer. Are you too rich, too famous, or just too dumb to care?

Of course, with plenty of alcohol and pot and pills in a person's system, concern for the welfare of others tends to diminish. But Bieber's outburst is just the latest in a recent string of incidents that suggests all it takes is a few hit records and the validation of screaming 8-year-olds for a guy to think he can get away with murder. Bieber has been investigated previously on charges of drag racing through his Calabasas, Calif., neighborhood, has been accused of spitting on and threatening a neighbor during a confrontation, and was accused of punching and kicking a photographer in 2012. In all cases, he was never prosecuted.

Bieber's latest foul-up, allegedly replete with underage drinking, hostile behavior and alarming recklessness, is his most serious to date – as anyone amazed at the near shutdown of all other news coverage Thursday would surmise. This one may actually have consequences. But based on that giddy smirk in his mug shot, the likelier outcome seems to be someone getting very hurt very soon rather than the Canadian pop star getting scared straight.

On the night of June 15, 2013, 16-year-old Ethan Couch and his friends stole some beers from a local Wal-Mart. Ethan Couch's family is very rich and very volatile. Later that evening, as Couch drove with a blood alcohol level of three times the legal limit and Valium in his system, his pickup struck and killed four pedestrians and seriously injured two others – one of whom is "no longer able to move or talk." He pleaded guilty to "four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault causing serious bodily injury." But his defense team argued that the boy was a victim too, putting a psychologist on the stand who explained that Couch's parents gave him "freedoms no young person should have" -- including letting him drive at age 13, and not punishing him when police ticketed him a year earlier when he was found in his pickup with a passed-out, undressed 14-year-old girl. The shrink said he was a product of "affluenza, where his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences." Judge Jean Boyd agreed, sentencing him not to the 20 years of jail time the prosecution had asked for but to 10 years of probation and no jail time. His family agreed to foot the bill for a rehab program that costs $450,000 a year. Because nothing tells someone who's killed four people that wealth doesn't buy privilege like dodging prison to go to a pricey rehab.

In court testimony, Couch was described as "belligerent and uncooperative following the deadly crash, at one point saying, 'I’m outta here,' and starting to walk away." It's a description that sounds remarkably similar to that of the officer who pulled over Justin Bieber, who notes that, "At first, he was a little belligerent, using some choice words questioning why he was being stopped and why the officer was even questioning him." Justin Bieber is not a young man used to being questioned. He is a young man used to getting everything he wants, to showing off his "new tat" and pics of "snowboarding with the fellas," because, as he said recently of a hideous new pair of shoes, "How could I not?" He's a guy who sails out of a police station into a Cadillac. And though his exploits were a goldmine for comics and late night talk show hosts this week, the fact that he seems to see getting arrested for an act that could easily have resulted in fatalities as an inconvenience and an offense to his celebrity suggests a truly brutal lack of humanity.

A few days ago, a friend reminded me of the brilliant line about a certain kind of deadly wealth from "The Great Gatsby." "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy," it goes. "They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." Money doesn’t cause that kind of vast carelessness. But as Bieber's bedroom-wall-worthy mug shot grin reveals, it sure as hell doesn't cure it either.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Affluenza Celebrity Justin Bieber